British authorities are tracking almost 30 high-priority terrorist plots involving 200 networks and 1,600 suspects, the head of Britain’s domestic spy agency said, adding that many of those under surveillance are homegrown terrorists plotting suicide attacks and other mass-casualty bombings.
Prime Minister Tony Blair backed his spy chief’s assessment and warned that the terrorist threat facing Britain “will last a generation.”
In a speech released by MI5 Friday, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller said her agency had foiled five major plots since the July 2005 transit bomb attacks in London.
Speaking to a small audience of academics in London on Thursday, Manningham-Buller said officials were “aware of numerous plots to kill people and to damage our economy.”
“What do I mean by numerous? Five? 10?” she said. “No, nearer 30 that we currently know of.”
She described those as "Priority 1" plots, saying they represent a caseload increase of 80 percent since January.
By contrast, the United States says its caseload has remained steady. FBI Director Robert Mueller said in September that the number of overall domestic terrorist investigations has remained fairly static for the past two years, after spiking immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Al-Qaida in Pakistan cited
Manningham-Buller added that “today we see the use of homemade improvised explosive devices, but I suggest tomorrow’s threat will include the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology.”
She said MI5 and the police were tracking 200 cells involving more than 1,600 individuals who were “actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts here and overseas.”
The threat includes “mass casualty suicide attacks in the U.K.,” she said.
Manningham-Buller, who has headed MI5 since 2002, said the plots “often have linked back to al-Qaida in Pakistan, and through those links al-Qaida gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale.”
Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said Manningham-Buller had given “a very sobering warning.” He said, however, it was essential that “British Muslims are seen as a partner in the fight against terrorism and not some sort of community in need of mass medication.”
“Holding a community responsible for the actions of a few would be counterproductive,” Bunglawala said.
Bill Durodie, senior lecturer in risk and security at the U.K. Defense Academy, said high-profile speeches and headline-grabbing numbers risked exaggerating the scale of the threat facing Britain.
“It’s easy to pull out alarmist headlines,” he said. “What we’re seeing here on the whole are lone individuals (and) small groups.”
Senior anti-terrorist officials have previously said that they have foiled several plots since the July 2005 attacks, but Manningham-Buller’s speech provided the first public estimate of the threat by the head of Britain’s domestic spy agency.
She warned that radicalization, especially of young people, was one of the biggest problems facing anti-terror investigators.
On July 7, 2005, four suicide bombers killed 52 people on three subway trains and a bus in London. Three of the four bombers were British-born.
This August, police said they had foiled a plot by a British terrorist cell to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners in mid-air. More than a dozen people, all British, are awaiting trial in the case.
On Tuesday, a British Muslim convert, Dhiren Barot, was sentenced to life in prison for plotting to attack U.S. financial landmarks and blow up London targets with limousines packed with gas tanks, napalm and nails.
'With us for a generation'
Manningham-Buller said some of the plots MI5 was tracking could be less serious than the one that ended in the 2005 attack, but that they still must be investigated.
She said the threat from international terrorism “is serious, is growing, and will, I believe, be with us for a generation.”
“It is the youth who are being actively targeted, groomed, radicalized and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow U.K. citizens,” Manningham-Buller said. “Young teenagers are being groomed to be suicide bombers.”
Blair told reporters at his Downing Street office that Manningham-Buller was “absolutely right that it will last a generation.”
“We need to combat the poisonous propaganda of those people that warps and perverts the minds of younger people,” he said.